“…not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25).
March 2020 brought lockdowns. That meant the mortification of public gathered Christian worship to bring about the mortification of a virus. Up until that point, I don’t recall ever hearing someone seriously assert that the church must not gather. By then, online church, or rather the ungathered gathering – a paradox – became orthodox, and gathered worship heterodox. The novel corona virus brought novel ecclesiology, and with that novel exegesis.
The post-lockdown interpretation of Hebrews 10:25 jolted me. Reformed confessions and standard evangelical doctrinal statements have referenced Hebrews 10:25 to substantiate church worship and weekly gatherings. Pastors have often referred to the text as a reason to attend church. Nevertheless, in March 2020 that changed. Professing Christians started saying “not neglecting to meet together” (Hebrews 10:25) is definitely not a definite principle, especially with a killer virus definitely afoot and new laws to definitely protect us designed by bureaucrats who definitely have our best in mind. Now we righteously neglect meeting together under some circumstances, especially when the almighty civil government anathematizes the corporate worship gathering as blasphemy against their gracious attempts to preserve life and lineage. The Premier’s one little word made isolation sacrosanct and church sacrilege. Caveats and qualifications, as if hidden treasures now unearthed, taught us that a holy church refuses to gather.
Some, with righteous indignation, accused us of binding consciences because we suggested that Hebrews 10:25, among other verses, binds the church to meet. The irony is that the outcry against our teaching, in the name of conscience rights, likely reached the ears of Queen’s Park quicker than any outcry against the state’s attempt to coerce our consciences with their power of the sword. Zeal for the safety plan, like a mighty rushing wind, inspired new imprecatory psalms petitioning, with the fervor of the persistent widow, that gathered churches all die of COVID or be thrown into jail for killing people, excommunicated from civilization and banished from the camp as unclean. I’m still alive and here, so perhaps their gods are deaf, or maybe they’re relieving themselves or even asleep. The ungathered church became dogma, and gathered churches became fanatic death cults or extremist suicide bombers. The mortification of worship equaled the mortification of sin: It preserved life, showed love of neighbour, upheld Romans 13, and maintained a good witness.
Here’s another way to think about it. The mortification of sin meant obedience to the state for the mortification of a virus, and the mortification of a virus, as per the state, is by the mortification of publicly gathered worship. Follow the logic, and mortification of sin happens by mortification of worship. That leads to life. Mortify thy worship, that thy days may be long in the land which the state giveth thee. Or this: Meekness means doing what the civil government says, and the civil government says don’t worship God as God commands. Blessed are the mortificationers of God’s worship, for they shall inherit the earth. Kill worship so you can live.
Turn to John Owen, the 17th century “Prince of the English divines,” once, in brighter days, a chaplain to Oliver Cromwell and vice-chancellor of Oxford University, and under King Charles II, in darker times, indicted for holding illegal church services. Also, with the plague and Great Fire of London,1 while the faithless clergy abandoned their posts, Owen went to London to provide Gospel hope to the despairing. He is the author of volumes upon volumes of works. Among his corpus is a 7-volume commentary on Hebrews, and contained therein are 8 ½ pages on Hebrews 10:25. Owen considered a gathered people an obedient people and an ungathered people a disobedient people. The church gathering, to Owen, was essential, and to forsake it was apostacy.
Owen defines the meeting “together” of Hebrews 10:25 as the ordered worship of the church:
For as the church itself is originally the seat and subject of all divine worship, so the actual assemblies of it are the only way and means for the exercise and performance of it. These assemblies were of two sorts: (1.) Stated, on the Lord’s day, or first day of the week, 1 Cor. xvi. 2; Acts.xx.7 (2.) Occasional, as the duties or occasions of the church did require, 1 Cor. v.4.2
The meetings include Lord’s Day services and more casual gatherings throughout the week. The Lord’s Day services, fixed and formal, take precedent, with the others being occasional.
Of the assemblies, Owen notes that they are the one place and time where the people of God uphold and corporately submit to the authority of Christ. Therefore, to abandon such gatherings is to forsake His lordship. As such, the gatherings are vital sources of nourishment for our souls. He says,
(1) That those assemblies, those comings together in one place, were the only way whereby the church, as a church, made its profession of subjection unto the authority of Christ in the performance of all those duties of sacred worship whereby God was to be glorified under the gospel. Wherefore a voluntary neglect and relinquishment of those assemblies destroys any church-state, if it be persisted in.
(2) That those assemblies were the life, the food, the nourishment of their souls; without which they could neither attend unto the discipline of Christ, nor yield obedience unto his commands, nor make profession of his name as they ought, nor enjoy the benefit of evangelical institutions: whereas a due observance of them consisted the trial of their faith in the sight of God and man.3
The gathering is not only our nourishment, but most importantly our subjection to the authority of Christ. No other way exists for Christians to collectively bear witness to the supremacy of Christ than by gathering for worship. Ceasing to gather is ceasing to be a church. A church that does not gather is a destroyed church and therefore no church at all. Those Christians and churches who cease to gather deny Christ’s supremacy, destroying themselves and their testimonies. To Owen the forsaken gathering is a denial of Christ, no matter what the ungathered tell themselves in their minds:
For as unto God, whatever reserves men may have in their minds, that they still continue to believe in Christ though they attended not unto his discipline in these assemblies, he regards it not; because therein men do openly prefer their own temporal safety before his glory.4
In other words, men can still convince themselves that they believe the Gospel, but a refusal to gather, even for the purpose of “safety,” is sure evidence that God does not believe they believe the Gospel. They have preferred themselves to the glory of God.
Some will argue that a temporary abandonment of the gathering is justified, if it comes with promise to resume. Owen disagrees. He believes that the abandoned gathering, forbidden in Hebrews 10:25, is that “which is so partially only.”5 A partial abandonment is an abandonment, just as a partial sin is a full sin.
The author of Hebrews reminded people to gather because the temptation to forsake gathering is perennial, especially during times of calamity and persecution. Society rages at the gathered Christians because they gather, and society knows who the Christians are by their gathering. Owen offers multiple reasons why people forsake the gathering, but he offers fear as the first reason:
These assemblies were those which exposed them unto sufferings, as those whereby they made their profession visible, and evidenced their subjection unto the authority of Christ; whereby the unbelieving world is enraged. This in all ages hath prevailed on many, in the times of trial and persecution, to withdraw themselves from those assemblies; and those who have done so are those “fearful and unbelieving” ones who in the first place are excluded from the new Jerusalem, Rev. xxi.8.6
Christians are marked off as Christians by gathering in the name of Jesus for worship. Gathering is the identifier of the believer. Some neglected to gather out of fear of suffering for the gathering. They might fear suffering from a sickness, but I suspect most fear suffering at the hands of the civil government. That’s cowardice. Owen points out that cowards have no part in the Jerusalem from above, and he explains that those who forsake the assembling out of fear are those cowards who go to hell. The churches who do not gather and the pastors who teach their churches not to gather, because they fear men, have been unmasked. Sanctimonious claims to love life aside, they are fearful and unbelieving cowards.
A desire to stay safe or a desire not offend the general population or a desire to avoid fines and legal troubles cannot supersede worship. When it does allegiances are revealed. Owen explains,
In such a season, all the arguings of flesh and blood will arise in the minds of men, and be promoted with many specious pretences: life, liberty, enjoyment in this world, will all put in to be heard; reserves concerning their state in this frame, with resolutions to return unto their duty when the storm is over; please and arguments that these assemblies are not so necessary, but that God will be merciful unto them in this thing. All which, and the like false reasonings, do carry them away to ruin. For notwithstanding all these vain please, the rule is peremptory against these persons. Those who, as to their houses, lands, possessions, relations, liberty, life, prefer them before Christ, and the duties which they owe to him, and his glory, have no interest in gospel promises. What ever men pretend they believe, if they confess him not before men, he will deny them before his Father which is in heaven.7
In other words, the ones who forsake the assembling because they want to preserve their lives or their comforts will be denied entry into eternal rest, no matter how sophisticated their theological reasonings. Among the ungodly reasons to forsake gathering, he includes the preservation of life, and we should see in that the fear of catching a deadly virus. If we don’t gather because we are afraid of getting sick, fear of illness supersedes worship. We can anticipate sophisticated reasoning to avoid the assembling when it is a fearful thing to assemble. Some will reason that they will regather when it is safe. Some will lean heavily on God’s mercy to excuse their practice of not gathering. They might see the light at the end of the tunnel when the trial ends, so when it does, because it is only temporary, they will gather again and in meantime cast themselves on the mercy of God. Such are “false reasonings,” which “carry them away to ruin.” Temporarily forsaking the gathering, no matter how reasonable the reasons, is deadly dangerous.
Owen further notes that those who neglect the assembling “ought to be marked, and their ways avoided,” and that their ways are “usually an entrance into apostacy.”8 This is especially true and pressing during public calamities:
Because without a diligent care we cannot pass through trials of any nature, in persecution, in public calamities, unto his glory and our own safety; for by a neglect of these duties all graces will decay, carnal fears will prevail, counsel and help will be wanting, and the soul will be betrayed into innumerable dangers and perplexities.9
How many of us have been surprised by how irrationally once sound and admirable men have become over the last months? “Carnal fears” have prevailed, and “counsel and help” have been “wanting,” which has “betrayed” many into “innumerable dangers and perplexities.” This has been a time of “public calamities,” whether it be a perceived virus or the economic and social turmoil the government has created. If there ever is a time to gather it is times of despair and confusion. But yet men have dismissed the necessity of gathering, and they have done it to the tune of “Thus saith the Lord.” Owen continues,
It is impossible that men should go or be carried through a day of public calamity, a destructive day, comfortable and cheerfully, without a diligent attendance unto those known duties of the gospel.10
Some might think they have been carried through our day of public calamity without the gathering, but I suspect they are deceived. They may not have publicly renounced Christ in word, but their omission of worship for months on end was loud enough. Their fear of a virus or fear of reprisal caused them to sacrifice the worship of God on the altar of safety or ease or love of money, which in and of itself is a denial of Christ. Fear of man and sickness and death have become the source of wisdom more than the fear of the Lord. Weaker brothers, by their pastors’ negligence and under their pastors’ instruction, have gone down dark paths towards sexual sin, despair, drunkenness, or even self-murder. Self-preservation prompted many pastors and elders to close the churches and admonish their flocks to forsake the gathering. And men congratulate themselves for doing it – a job well done, as they see it, in the name of Jesus.
A cavalier dismissal of Owen’s warnings is imprudent and almost certainly highhanded hubris. I fail to see any good way forward for the ones who taught people to forsake the gathering, at least outside of their public repentance. The pastors who publicly called for a forsaken gathering led their flocks to danger, potentially a road to apostacy, and their actions made gathering that much more arduous for the ones who did. If that is so, blood is on their hands. They told an onlooking world that fear of getting sick or obedience to the state is first, while the public worship of Jesus Christ is at best second. It’s a bad witness to the supremacy and worthiness of Christ, and it is a forsaking of the abundant fearless lives we are to live for God’s glory. Many churches who abandoned the gathering destroyed themselves, and to re-gather without acknowledging as much is akin to regathering behind a fig leaf. The professing believers who attacked the gathered attacked the obedient church of Jesus Christ. They attacked the men and women who defended the crown rights of Jesus as Head and King of the church, and they did so in the name of God, thus calling good evil. I fear this is only the symptom of greater spiritual rot which has festered in the secret places for many years. The season pressed in, and truth oozed out. A hot sun peels away paint of pretention while illuminating a man’s true colours. For sure, in Christ, God offers mercy to the lapsed, but confession and repentance will be the first sign that mercy has been granted.